'The main drawback is that the move is symptomatic of something in Illingworth that looks very much like insecurity. He has surrounded himself with oldsters'

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The Independent Online
Some time in the next five days, unless Ray Illingworth is feeling especially pig-headed, Alan Wells, batsman and wine buff, will make his England debut at the mature old age of 33.

It could only happen here. Peter Taylor was past 30 when called up by Australia, but spinners are different. It's hard to remember an elderly West Indian, Pakistani, or Indian debutant.

All these countries, if anything, are going the other way. Wells was born in 1961, the same year as Dean Jones, who has been put out to grass by Australia after 216 international appearances.

It felt as if even England had given up on aged novices until now. In fact, to find a debutant as old as Wells, you have only to go back to England's last one - Joey Benjamin, who was 33 when picked to play at The Oval last year. He did well (4 for 80 in the match), but the spotlight was grabbed by Devon Malcolm and when England went to Australia, Benjamin was hardly given an opportunity. Already, perhaps unfairly, he looks like a member of the one-Test club.

The Dad's Army call-up used to be more common. Twenty years ago, David Steele, at the age of 33, put a navy-blue cap on his grey head, gave his specs a final polish, walked down the pavilion stairs at Lord's, went too far and found himself in the gents', but recovered in time to prove that Lillee and Thomson were perfectly playable, so long as you went forward to every ball.

A year later, England gave a first cap to another studious-looking greybeard, Mike Brearley, then 34. He never made the grade as a batsman, but is widely reckoned to have shown some ability as a captain.

Another year on, and with Brearley invalided out of a tour, the call went out to Clive Radley, 33. He nudged and nurdled his way to 158 in his second Test and 106 in his third.

So all of these were a success. But the only one to last was Brearley - who was picked for his brains. Norman Gifford and others have said that Wells could have three good years of Test cricket in him, but Steele and Radley, for all their fighting qualities, played only eight Tests each.

How you view Wells' promotion will depend on how old you are. (I'm 32. Relieved to find that I still have a chance of playing for England, I've spent the week looking for a county that will take me on as its captain.) But it is hard to ignore the drawbacks.

The main one is that the move is symptomatic of something in Illingworth that looks very much like insecurity. Coming to the England chair at 61, and to the managership at 62, he has surrounded himself with fellow oldsters: Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus (now deposed), both past 60, as selectors; John Edrich and Peter Lever, both mid-50s, as England's new coaches. The real reason for picking Wells may be to make sure there's one person in the squad who remembers seeing these gentlemen play.

A further problem is that Wells's appearance will encourager les autres. Creaking journeymen will take heart, postpone their retirements, and keep some bright young thing in the second XI, when he would be much better off going in at the deep end.

On the other hand, selection is a nonsense if not done on merit, and when Wells made 178 for England A against Warwickshire's Allan Donald a month ago he looked the part: straight bat, clean hitting, big appetite, prepared to loft the ball, always looking to dictate terms.

If you had not known who he was, you would have been sure Wells was a Test cricketer. He is seldom injured, a good fielder, and one of not many alternative captains if Mike Atherton goes on struggling to get the best out of others as he does from himself. Wells may be the oldest man in the present squad, but he is four years younger than the man he in effect replaces - Mike Gatting. And three stone lighter.

The best thing about the move is that it is a natural step up from the England A team. If you are going to have an A team, this is how it must be used - as a testing ground, a stepping stone.

It is not often that players and fans have had the feeling that there was much rhyme or reason to the selection process. To make sure they do not get that impression now, Illingworth has neatly reversed the logic of choosing Wells by preferring Peter Martin to Glen Chapple as the spare bowler.

Chapple had an outstanding A tour and was clearly at the head of the queue for higher honours. (His "niggle behind the knee" has not stopped him bowling more overs this summer than Martin.) So Illingworth went for a bowler of the same type, from the same county, who is five years Chapple's senior, has a far lower strike rate, and has never played for the A team. Which goes to show that older does not always mean wiser.

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